After a great night sleep and a wonderful breakfast at the Mayhurst Inn, Brett and I headed to our first meeting for day at James Madison Museum in Orange, Virginia. Brett and I had wanted to talk with them about forming a working relationship. Through our connection with James Madison, we felt that together we could offer those who are interested in and love James Madison a great experience in discovering the man.
The James Madison Museum was established in 1976. The museum exhibits personal items, papers and furnishing of James and Dolley Madison. There are also other related items that connect to the Madisons and the town of Orange. When you pull up to the building, you may at first think that is just a small museum with limited items, but that would be far from the truth. This building extends to two floors and has items I would have never guessed that would have been there.
When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by Bethany, the museum’s curator and former docent at Montpelier. She introduced us to the President of the James Madison Museum, Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith started guiding us through the museum pointing out some of the precious items they have on display.
The display we saw was a feature display of Civil War artifacts. There were beautiful dresses of days gone by. It would have been easy to see Melanie from Gone with the Wind wearing them. She also pointed out a display of a sailor in “cracker jacks” with an arm band showing that he had served on the USS James Madison. The USS James Madison was a Navy Submarine that has since been retired. Brett and I were drawn to this display, not only because Brett also served on a submarine, but because we have had the honor of meeting and becoming friends with an Officer who served on the James Madison.
Dr. Smith guided us into the main display room where she pointed out a chair. This chair belonged to James Madison and was the chair that he wrote the Bill of Rights in! How hard it was not to reach out and touch this wonderful piece! Above the chair were portraits of James Madison as well as statues of him sitting nearby. I mention to Dr. Smith and Bethany that we had just purchased an engraving of James Madison. Bethany got excited and asked me if I wanted to see the portrait the engraving was done from. Wow what a difference in what he was in this portrait and what the engrave made him.
At this display, they had several personal items from Dolley Madison. There was a black shawl of hers and a baby’s cap that she made. There were other displays of other presidents of Virginia here too. Did you know that Virginia has given America the most Presidents? There have been eight US Presidents born in Virginia: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson.
After viewing this case, we walked back to the conference room to have our meeting. In the conference room, we had a chance to see a piano forte that was built in 1884. They had stored it here until they could find a new home for it. Who knows, maybe one day you might see it at Belle Grove.
During our meeting we discussed our goals with Belle Grove and what we had to go through before we open. We were so excited to find out that Dr. Smith is a master gardener and works with the Master Gardeners of Virginia. She told us that she would love to be able to help with the landscaping and would be happy to offer suggestion and advice on what to plant to represent the plants of Virginia and its history in gardens. We have a goal of establishing a formal walking garden at Belle Grove. We would like to have a representation of the temple at Montpelier to grace the center of this garden. She told us she would be happy to help us make this garden one of the best.
Sadly, Dr. Smith had another appointment and wasn’t able to stay with us long. But both she and the James Madison Museum have offered any help we need to and would love to be a partner with us to make Belle Grove Plantation one of the best plantations in Virginia.
After our meeting, Bethany walked us around and showed us more of the museum. She even showed us some of the items that weren’t on display! What a treat that was! We showed her our artifacts from Belle Grove and told her about our hopes in doing some archaeological digs at Belle Grove. We would love to be able to find something that would be connected with the Conway family and James Madison.
Before we left, we collected some books from the book sale. These books will go to Belle Grove’s library and will be available to our guest to read. Bethany also gave us several books on James and Dolley Madison and even a PBS video of Dolley Madison! Brett and I watched it later that evening at the plantation. It was a very revealing look at the life of Dolley Madison. I would recommend this video if you want to get to know the woman who made James Madison president!
When we left we realized that we had spent almost three hours looking at the displays, talking with Bethany and wondering in awe at the pieces the unassuming museum had collected! We have driven by this museum so many times. After spending the time to see it now, we just want to shoot ourselves for waiting so long to stop and see it! If you are in the area of Orange or Charlottesville, Virginia and you love or have an interest in James Madison, you must stop here to see the collection. It will be well worth your time! Tell them Belle Grove sent you!
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